Gussie Oscar and Waco Auditorium were match made in heaven

By: Carl Hoover, Waco Tribune-Herald

April 2, 2007

She was, in the words of a journalist of her time, a "pint-sized whirlwind." It was, in one newspaper's opinion, a massive, red-brick "white elephant." Together, Gussie Oscar and the Waco Auditorium shaped Waco's public entertainment for the first third of the 20th century.

That collaboration, and Oscar's association with the larger Cotton Palace Coliseum, introduced Waco audiences to Jasha Heifetz, the Marx Brothers, Harry Houdini, George M. Cohan, Will Rogers, Fred and Adele Astaire, John Philip Sousa, Martha Graham and the Ziegfield Follies as well as wrestling matches, minstrel shows, dog fights and racy musicals that ran afoul of a Waco censorship board.

Oscar was born in 1875 in Calvert to German immigrant Rudolph Oscar and his American wife, Ella. Her father became a wealthy merchant and builder, a key player in the construction of Calvert's Casimir's Opera House and Grand Hotel. Opera houses and hotels, interestingly, would shape much of Gussie Oscar's adult life.

Oscar defied the social conventions for women throughout her life, well documented in Catherine Rife Porter's 1980 master's thesis The Waco Auditorium and Gussie Oscar, 1915-1928, and Patricia Ward Wallace's history of notable Waco women, A Spirit So Fine. Oscar started as a traveling actress and musician in the early 1900s, and then moved to Waco in 1905, where she performed as an accompanist for the Majestic Theater and Waco Auditorium.

In 1911, she created and conducted an all-female orchestra, a first for Waco, and in 1915 became the first woman to manage the Waco Auditorium, built in 1899.

The Waco Auditorium's investors intended the building, located at the intersection of North Sixth Street and Columbus Avenue, to replace the Garland Opera House, and it originally had the capacity to hold 3,000 people. Nationally known politician William Jennings Bryan spoke at the new Waco venue, but getting sold-out performances apparently were a problem in the early seasons, and interior renovations soon cut capacity to approximately 1,500 seats, roughly between today's Waco Hall and Hippodrome Theatre.

No photos exist of the facility's interior, but period descriptions mention eight theater boxes, walls finished in terra cotta, first and second balconies and a "canary ceiling."

Oscar managed the facility during a transitional period in American popular entertainment. The Waco Auditorium's first seasons were crammed with touring theatrical productions and vaudeville acts, but by 1915, silent movies — often with live orchestral accompaniment — started to appear, and the facility soon found competition in the 1920s from Waco's six movie houses.

Oscar continued to book theater acts and the occasional opera, but added racier fare, from wrestling matches for men and women-only shows like "The Unwanted Child" to musicals with chorus girls in controversial — in Waco, at least — flapper attire. Oscar often defied the city's blue laws, which banned theatrical entertainment on Sundays, and was arrested twice in her career.

There were lines, however, she didn't cross. In 1923, she refused to rent her sidewalk to an entrepreneur hoping to sell lemonade and snacks to crowds attending Waco's last public hanging on the courthouse grounds across Sixth Street.

For much of her adult life, Oscar resided in the Raleigh Hotel, at a time when social convention frowned on single women who didn't live with families as boarders. She lived in the hotel's sixth-floor honeymoon suite — one of the hotel's few rooms large enough to accommodate her grand piano.

Oscar ran a tight operation at the Waco Auditorium — a former usher recalled she'd fire employees who showed up late or out of uniform — but slumping business in the late '20s led to its closing in 1928. It was leveled that year to make room for a garage and hardware store.

She once remarked to a friend she regretted not taking a Waco businessman's offer to buy the auditorium before its destruction.

Oscar shifted her booking and management work to other Waco venues, primarily the considerably larger Cotton Palace Coliseum, with room for 10,000 people, and, beginning in the 1940s, Waco Hall.

Oscar died in 1950 and is buried at Hebrew Rest Cemetery.

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